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Bunraku (Culture): Japanese Puppet Theater with Unrivaled Techniques

Looking at this photo, you most likely would feel the essence of Japan. However, do you have any other knowledge or information of what it is? This is a type of Japanese traditional performing arts called Bunraku. It utilizes many extremely interesting techniques. Today we will share some characteristics about the Bunraku that is sure to be helpful if you have a chance to see Bunraku in Japan.


What is Bunraku?



Bunraku is a type of traditional performance arts. It is a Japanese puppet theater that started in Osaka in the early Edo Period (1603-1868). Similar to Kabuki and Noh, it is registered in UNESCO’s list of the world’s intangible cultural heritages. Major characteristics of Bunraku are that it is a comprehensive performance art (Ningyo Jyoruri) that combines Puppet Theater + Jyoruri i.e. Dayu (performer)/Shamisen (Japanese Lute). The expressiveness of this art is said to be unrivaled in the world. It is said that in the Edo Period, it was more popular than Kabuki, which is now probably the most famous form of Japanese performance art.  


Characteristics of Bunraku

1. The Main Performer Dayu and Shamisen Lute

Left: Dayu, Right: Shamisen,

Your focus tends to go toward the puppet, but the main attraction of the Bunraku is the dayu and shamisen. The dayu and shamisen are situated in an area called yuka (floor) and they work in beautiful harmony to add excitement to the performance.

  • Dayu (太夫): The role of the dayu is to read the script which is called yukahon. As a general rule, the yukahon is written by the dayu himself. The contents not only include dialogue of the characters but also the emotions and scenic background as well. Once the play starts, a single dayu expresses everything from the dialogue for all the characters, male or female and young to old, emotions, changing scenes, the background story and the human mentality. They are so expressive that the audience could tell everything that is going on even if they had their eyes closed.
  • Shamisen (三味線): The role of creating sound effects during the play. Similar to the dayu, the shamisen can express happy and sad as well as the scenery from a single note. They place particular emphasis on echo and resonance. They sometimes express percussion like sounds by playing in a hard striking motion against the strings to show dramatic emotion or harsh situations.

2. 3 People to 1 Puppet


Though there are puppet shows like the marionette all around the world, the control of 1 puppet by 3 people is extremely rare and a distinct characteristic of the Bunraku. Also, in other puppet shows, the puppeteer is hidden above or below the stage. The Bunraku is unique as the puppeteer is visible from the audience. The use of 3 puppeteers makes the puppet so expressive that it looks like a real live person.

  • Omo-zukai (主遣い): Controls the head and right arm.
  • Hidari-zukai (左遣い): Controls the left hand and utilizes props.
  • Ashi-zukai (足遣い): Controls the legs and sounds footsteps.

The hidari-zukai and ashi-zukai focus their entire concentration on the nonverbal directions given by the omo-zukai. This makes an amazing collaboration possible. It is a highly skilled art. They are generally dressed in black. However, at some important scenes, only the omo-zukai may make his face visible.


Another feature that allows the expressiveness is the detailed and complex making of the puppet. The puppet is not made from one complete body; rather it is made up of many parts such as the head, wig, hands and foot, body, costume, props (sword, fan, umbrella etc) to make it befitting to the play or the role of the character. Using the same facial parts but changing the wig can transform the character into a completely different role. Additionally, the fingertips, eyebrows, eyes, tongue, hair and stomach can be moved independently so it is an extremely high quality puppet.


Can you read their emotions or the background of the story just from a photo?

3. It Can Be Enjoyed Even Without Understanding Japanese

History Drama (時代物)

Drama of Common People’s Lives (世話物),

There are history drama (jidai mono) that focus on events that happen in aristocratic families or samurai society as well as drama of common people’s lives with merchants as the main character (sewa mono) making it the perfect entertainment for people who are interested in Japanese culture and history. The expressiveness of the shamisen and the puppet conveys the story well enough so that even if you were not able to understand the Japanese words that the dayu speaks; it wouldn’t be a loss to go and see.

Where to see the Bunraku:
National Bunraku Theater (Osaka), Map
National Theater of Japan (Tokyo), Map


In the near future, there may be many robots that are used in our daily lives. The high quality movements of the Bunraku puppets have been referenced in making humanoid robots as well. It may not be so far in the future when robots can express the human mind.

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